Your Questions Answered

10 09 2009

Hi, I am glad I came across your site. I am hoping for some insight. I had dated my husband for eight years before getting married six months ago. He has three children and our relationship has been nothing but full of love from the beginning. I do not have children and treat them as my own but understand and respect the fact that they do have a mother and I am not taking her place. However, just naturally, I have played the mother role when the kids are with us.

Everything has been great and six months ago before we got married, my middle stepson that lives with us, age 16, said that people said that things will be different and he said I don’t see how they will be different.

Well, he just returned from spending two months with his mom and I noticed since he’s been back something is different with him. He seems a little uneasy, very subtle changes but I am very intuitive of these things. On top of all this we are moving to a house and there is a lot of stress in the house which might be amplifying things.

Well, tonight things blew up he spoke disrespectfully to me, which he usually doesn’t do and my husband told him to apologize. He apologized and said that he is just going through something. It’s nothing that I am doing, he says it’s just that he is worried that I am going to become his mother. He is afraid of not being loyal to her and perhaps loving me as his mom since I am taking the mom roll day in and out.

I so feel for him and am not sure what to do to make him feel better and I dont know what roll to take. My instinct is to back off from him and be in outsider but I know that is not right. Please advise…

Dear reader:

What you and your family are experiencing are a completely normal part of stepfamily development. No matter how long you dated your husband before you married, things do change when you marry and live together as your stepson so wisely said. (He sounds very mature for his age, by the way! Few stepchildren can articulate what he did to you. What a gift!)

He is talking to you about what stepfamily experts call a loyalty bind. He fears that if he likes or even loves you it will be taking away love from his mother or make her hurt or even angry. The best way to deal with loyalty binds is for the adults in the situation to sit down with your stepson and say something like, “You know what, you can love me and you can love your mom and that’s totally okay. Your mom is your mom and always will be no matter what. She loves you. I’m your stepmom and that’s different. You and I get to figure out what that means to us together.”

If both of your stepson’s biological parents reinforce this message, it will make your stepson feel a lot better and quickly, too. Stepchildren are often discouraged to talk about their negative or challenging feelings out loud so the fact that you are already discussing this openly with your stepson is a BIG deal. Congrats to you.

As for your role. You are describing what is called role ambiguity. You are trying to find out what being a stepmother means to you and your family. Some women choose to occupy what Dr. Patricia Papernow calls an “intimate outsider” position. They are a part of the family, but they leave the bulk of the parenting to the biological parent. Some women choose a more active role. Some act like a teacher or a coach or an aunt figure.

How you configure your role in your stepfamily has a lot to do with what you are comfortable with, the level of involvement of the biological mother, the support you receive from your spouse, and what the children will accept from you. You can read more about this in my book where I devote quite a lot of space to the topic of role ambiguity.

 In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to continue to talk with your family about what it feels like for each of you to be a new member of a stepfamily. The more you can communicate in these early stages the better off you’ll be.

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